How to Break Any Bad Habit in 4 Steps

July 16, 2018 ...

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Two years ago today, I was studying for undergraduate admission. That was the most confusing time of my life. I felt like I had no place in the world, no value. Only thing that could offer me some value was acceptance into one of my country’s engineering schools. So I knew I had to study. But there was just one problem. I was spending way too much time on the internet, I was addicted to it. Much of my limited time went into vain, I was distracted even when I was studying. It was a terrible situation.

So to make that situation better, I knew I had to change this bad habit of mine. It took me a month, but finally I was not addicted to the internet anymore. Fast forward two years, now I’m studying in one of the best engineering schools in my country as a second year student and I still feel lucky for that struggling habit-breaking one month I have in my life.

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I’m pretty sure most of our readers have a habit that they’d like to get rid of too. It might be an addiction to social media, or video games, or might even be caffeine. Well they should know, no matter how attached we are to our bad habits, we always have the ability to be free from them. It’s like what Aristotle said over 2,000 years ago,

“Whatever lies within our power to do lies also within our power not to do.”

So let’s start. To change something, firstly, we have to understand it. So let’s try understanding what is a habit, how it works and why habits are embedded so strongly in us.

What really is a habit? How does it work?

The American Journal of Psychology (1903) defines a habit from the standpoint of psychology, as “a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.” In one of the most popular books on this topic, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg defines a habit as “an ingrained pattern of behavior.”

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“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg: A must read for those who are determined to change their habits

Duhigg explains the pattern of habits by something he calls a “habit loop.” The Habit Loop is a neurological loop that governs any habit. It has three stages:

  • The cue
  • The routine
  • The reward

To understand them, we can break a habit down using these three stages. Let’s say, browsing social media:

Your device beeps with a social media notification (The Cue)

This is the event that triggers or initiates the behavior. The beep acts as a trigger or cue to tell you to check your notifications.

You check your notifications (The Routine)-

This is the actual behavior, the activity that is triggered by the cue. When changing a bad habit, this is the part you want to change.

You know what the notifications are for (The Reward)-

This is the benefit gained from doing the behavior. You wanted to find out what the notifications are for. Now you have the comfort of knowing it, maybe even get entertained by that piece of information. The reward is the reason the brain decides the previous steps are worth remembering for the future. The reward provides positive reinforcement for the desired behavior, making it more likely that you will produce that behavior again in the future.

So what’s the harm, right? You want something, you are getting it. The brain decides what’s good for you, it’s giving you that. Well, that’s where you’re wrong, kiddo. Because as every rose has its thorn, many of the hormonal responses that make you feel good have some harm associated with it. Okay, let me explain.

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When does a habit become a bad habit?

We’ve already known how a reward turns a routine into a habit. After your brain has experienced a powerful reward for a habit, like sudden delight when someone reacts “love” to your status, your amygdala (the part of your brain associated with memory and emotion) keeps the memory of that reward together with the good emotions associated with it.

Once the cue is triggered in your mind again, like there’s a Facebook notification, your brain then associates that cue with the happy emotions and starts pumping out dopamine in anticipation of the reward it’s going to eventually receive. So you have to check if someone reacted love to your status or not.

But you have to understand, your personal and professional goals don’t work that way. You want to remain healthy, achieve success for a long term, abide by you social responsibilities, be there for your family. A bad habit is any routine that hinders you from those, rather than helping you toward them. Usually, these bad habits have short-term rewards at the expense of your health, productivity and inner tranquillity.

So, we can see, a good habit and a bad habit works the same way. It’s the reward we are looking for is ultimately harming us in case of bad habits. As a habit is kind of an automated biological response, you can’t really omit a habit from your life, that is kind of impossible for you, biologically. You can just turn your bad habits into good ones. To do that, we have to hack into the “Habit Loop” to use it to our advantage. We have to break down our habits, find the cue, the routine and the reward, and transform it little by little.

Charles Duhigg has already made a framework for that in his book “The Power of Habit.”

Step-1: Identify the Routine

Most habits have a routine that’s pretty easy to identify: it’s the behavior you wish to change. Duhigg describes his own habit of going to the cafeteria in the afternoon and getting a chocolate chip cookie then sitting down with friends to chat as a routine. From there, he had to identify the cue and the reward.

For myself, I wanted to change my habit of browsing the internet without any purpose. Now that was my routine.

What was my cue? Was it my computer table? the sight of my computer? The google chrome icon in the taskbar?

And what about rewards? Is it that studying felt a bit lonely to me, the useless internet information about celebrities and comic books gave me a sense of connection? Or the fact that I could forget about my responsibilities while being on the internet could be the reward, Or it might simply be the entertainment.

These are things that should be found out to change a bad habit.

Step-2: Experiment with Rewards

The reward for a given habit isn’t always as obvious as you might think. While the reward for a daily craving for chocolate chip cookie in the cafeteria might be the taste of the cookie or the energy boost he got from it, Dihung found out that what he really craved for was the socialization with his peers in the cafeteria. That is why you have to experiment with your rewards, to find out what you are really craving for.

Experimenting with rewards is the time-consuming part of hacking your habits. Each time you feel the urge to repeat your routine, try changing the routine, the reward, or both. Keep track of your changes, and test different theories on what drives your routine. In Duhigg’s case, did he want the cookie or just want a walk?

Was he hungry or was he just seeking social interaction? He tried just having a cookie, not the interaction. That didn’t feel fulfilling for him. But when he tried just the social interaction, without the cookie, after 15 minutes, he didn’t even want the cookie anymore. So it was the socialization he was craving for.

In my case, I found out that talking with my family instead of using the internet, or having a phone conversation with one of my friends also mitigated my craving for the internet. So what I really loved about the internet was the sense of connection it was giving me. The YouTube videos, the interviews, articles, streaming TV series- all provided me with one thing, connection. You see, during this admission time, all your friends remain busy with studying or making career choices, you also have to remain busy; the amount of social interactions really goes downhill all of a sudden. I think that is why my craving was born.

Step-3: Isolate the Cue

With the abundance of stimuli, you are facing you each day, isolating a habit’s cue is a difficult thing to do. Five categories of cues are distinguished through experiments. To understand what could be triggering your habit, find out the answers to the following questions for when you perform the routine and think about the answers.

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action immediately preceded the urge?

I found out my cue was a break after continuous 25-30 minutes of study. It might seem like an exaggeration, but studying maths and science really is a lonely task in my opinion.

Step-4: Have a Plan

When Duhigg finished his study of his chocolate cookie habit, he discovered that his cue was the time of roughly 3:30pm, his routine was to go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and chat with friends. The reward, he discovered, was not the cookie itself, but the opportunity to socialize. Thus, he created this plan for working around his habit: At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes. He then set an alarm on his watch for 3:30.

While implementing the plan had its hiccups, after a few weeks of paying careful attention to his new routine, he now does it unconsciously, as a habit. Just one that’s better for him.

For me, my rescue was the “” site. No, It’s not a promotion or endorsement at all. I thought, If I talk with my family members or call a friend after every 25-30 minutes, that would be way too much of a distraction for me. That might even turn out to be a worse habit. So, every 25-30 minutes of study, just as I started to feel lonely and my concentration was fading away, I just watched 10 minute school’s HSC and Admission tutorial videos relevant to my study topics.

As the instructors on the site was really communicative, It did feel like a social interaction. So I was getting the reward I was really craving for. I also watched Onnorokom Pathshala and Michel van Biezen, they were really helpful too. Of course, I did all these in study intervals.

So after around 1 month, my habit of browsing internet turned into a habit of gaining useful knowledge.

For the 4th step, there are some great apps on the internet which you can take assistance from:

  1. Habit Tracker
  2. Loop
  3. Goal Tracker & Habit List

So to recap, a habit is an ingrained pattern of behavior that starts with a cue that triggers a routine that leads to a reward. You cannot stop a habit altogether. However, there is a 4 step process available that can reform your bad habit into something that helps.

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The designer of this 4-step process Charles Dihung once said,

“There’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”

So why waiting, start changing your bad habits today! Just remember these 4 steps: identify the routine, experiment with rewards, isolate the cue and have a plan, and you’re all set!

This article’s audiobook is read by Sadia Raisa

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